This is a collection of thoughts and ideas I have been pondering over the course of the past few weeks and months on where food, food media, collectivism, and (slightly ironically) individualism are trending towards. It might get ramble-y at times, but these ideas need to be said.
Screened under both the lens of what has transpired at Bon Appetit (not going to bother with the grave accent, because they don’t really deserve that recognition right now), and the culmination of centuries of racial tension in America, there has been a growing conversation about truly representative food, the presence of diverse voices in food media, and tokenism in our shared space. I won’t mince words, this dialogue needed to happen; mainstream, mass appeal, and popular food media is extremely white. Deeply ironic for a white guy to say, but for the sake of conversation, humor me. A lack of representation, authenticity, and intent damages our thought processes as humans (much less as creators or as a ‘brand’), and at times is offensive to entire cultures when we omit these ideas from food and own consciousness.
Too often are we enticed by the addition of some low-hanging SEO key-phrases such as “Asian inspired X”, “Authentic Y”, “Z Fusion”, etc in our vernacular to describe a dish we have cooked. Often, these recipes or ideas are astoundingly average and/or lack nuance when one needs to sufficiently talk about a food. Even more so, they are often white washed to appeal to a predominantly Western palate (either intently, or subconsciously because this mass-market appeal will ‘sell’). For example, “Asian inspired chicken bake”: what does this mean exactly? Asia is a pretty big place, you know? You have successfully taken one of the most complex histories and traditions and food and completely sanitized it down to putting soy sauce on chicken. Food media and its consumption has become a vast ocean with a lack of authenticity, somewhat by design, as a rudderless entity hellbent on being free of gatekeepers on food (even though Italians would have it be that way). Don’t get me wrong, food SHOULD be accessible; everyone has to eat a few times a day, and we are programmed to enjoy a variety of food (there is science on this subject), but a standard needs to be set. Perhaps not a global standard that applies to every individual making food content, but we should strive to be paragons of intentional food content creation. Attempts to lower the bar so far to the point of trivializing are damning, you stray far too close to Theseus’ Ship (wow, a lot of nautical themed analogies today) when you start replacing ingredients. Now, am I saying you have to make a pilgrimage to Calabria to find the freshest of peppers for your piquant stew you’re making? Of course not, stay within your means (there is an entire other essay on food privilege that could be said here). But seek out local markets where you can at least get close to the ideas and flavors that should be captured. Break out of your comfort zone and look around for Pixian doubanjiang (ask around, 90%+ of people would be glad to help you find something), or actual Thai eggplants instead of going with the big purple emoji one you’re used to seeing in your DMs. If you cannot find the exact ingredient, consider consulting with someone more experienced to guide you in the right direction. Don’t a) let that shy you away from experiencing a new dish or b) self-censor yourself because you would be afraid ingredient X will be too off-putting for your audience or your own palate. Cultural sanitation has occurred many times in food spaces, with restaurants trying to “clean” Chinese food (implying it is dirty), by removing key aspects like MSG from a food because of dubious scientific claims, or by succumbing to reductionist thinking by saying pho bo is just pot au feu from the French (which again, is itself its own essay on food colonialism).
Food does not have to be this monolithic entity; there is no Ministry of Food (yet, at least) to keep individuals siloed into camps that “Cas, you must cook Vietnamese food”, and by that, I also mean that cultures and ideas of food morph into a collective mass of trends combined with traditions.
I am breaking the self-made mold and veneer-like brand of scientific thinking here to iterate: food is simply more than science and technique. Shocking to hear coming out of my [digital] mouth, I know. Food is a (if not one of *the* most effective) medium in which shared cultures, lineages, and ideas can transcend physical space and time (even death) to make an impact on our lives. This is one of the surrounding theses behind Anthony Bourdain’s line of thought and philosophy he talks about in his various shows and books. The lowest barrier of entry to even begin appreciation of a culture that differs from yours is to eat their food and listen to the people surrounding you when you eat it. Acknowledge this cultural divide and appreciate it, lest your meals or way of thought become routine, homogeneous, and identical. Listen to the people telling their story about food (yes, even if it is Becky reminiscing about how mashed potatoes remind her of her grandmother). Oftentimes, the candidness and authenticity of someone speaking about something he or she loves is a truly moving and powerful moment, especially on platforms like Instagram where we have the upfront aesthetics of the photo put on a pedestal far above any actual content below said photo. Appreciate the conversation. Appreciate the time and effort put into expression. Appreciate the memories someone halfway across the planet decided to share with you.
Acknowledge that food is iterative, people of all backgrounds have come before you to set the stage. Food, at least at the level in which 99% of people operate, is rarely revolutionary. You did not discover a life-changing kitchen hack. You did not invent a new method of cooking X. You did not discover that cilantro would taste good in place of parsley. You are not the first person to think that umami-filled caramelized onions would taste good in a pasta sauce (no shit). You have inspirations, whether you want to believe it or not. This content denialism happens on a massive scale, in this semi-Mandela Effect manner, and I believe it is intentional because it can serve as a carte blanche for making oneself seem more genuine than he or she is. YouTube media figures do this all the time, with a sort of of “well, *I* have months long content ideas, it just so happens me and John Doe published a macaroni and cheese video within 3 days of each other” aura. Credit erasure is subversively intentional, and it can be extremely damaging when coupled with the exploitation of a culture or one of its dishes for the benefit of the content creator. Diet Plagiarism. Bargain Bin Cultural Appropriation.
On cultural appropriation, some can view this as a motivation to “stay in one’s lane and never branch out”. I vehemently disagree with this assertion, under the caveat(s) that you give a dish or technique the same (if not more) respect than you would give your own. I have *never* received an angry DM that I “shouldn’t be profiteering off cooking all this Asian food”, nor have I intentionally sought to “claim” Sichuan Chili Oil as my own invention (see above) in some strange Christ*pher Columbian discovery of the 21st Century. I have definitely received feedback on some topics such as “you misspelled this”, “usually we tend to eat the rice and curry separately [maybe don’t toss it in a bowl together]”, etc. I welcome these comments, it is how I learn, as we can’t learn everything through print media. This is constructive criticism at its core though, y’all. American students (and society at large) are never taught how to take (or really dole out) meaningful critiques, so we can view this as an attack or accusation that we are not doing our due diligence – in some cases this is warranted, by all means, when someone decides to inauthentically toss some random meat into a tortilla (and even go so far as calling it a tortilla shell), and proclaiming it is an XYZ taco. Toxic individualism can be somewhat to blame for this and the growing use of cultural appropriation, however, as the need to stand out amongst a sea of tray bakes and one-skillet pasta dishes. So the low-hanging fruit approach is to bastardize concept A from a culture or to take technique B and loosely apply it to foodstuff C. Does this rule out the concept of fusion entirely? Not exactly, especially not when both ends of the stick are treated with respect (maybe this is a topic for another discussion). There are however, a finite number of combinations to apply, so be careful, and don’t masquerade your idea of taking Korean ingredients and putting them with tortillas as Korean nachos as your own invention.
Diversify your following and exposure to food accounts. Praise the accounts that cook a variety of dishes with great precision. We are nearly a month deep into a revelatory period where people are examining their following and followers for diversity. Embrace this, because I know I can do a lot better. Be your own individual on social media, while also respecting cultures and realizing that food is a great binder of humanity.
All of this rambling, just to say that food and cooking should (and must) be done with judicious commitment and purpose, it must be made with intent, thought about, pondered upon, reflected on, else we do our cultural influencers (both intrinsically and extrinsically), our audience, and ourselves a great disservice. After all, posting pictures on Instagram would be excessively boring if everything coalesces into a sheet pan dinner, instant pot solution, or Mexican-inspired chicken stew.